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Playing Horn in the Big Apple

New York City is home to some of the finest orchestral, operatic, chamber, solo, studio, jazz and natural horn players. The Musicians Local 802 American Federation of Musicians membership directory lists approximately 120 professional horn players currently working in the city and the numbers seem to increase every month. Most are freelancers, but the full-time members of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera sections take outside work as well. At this time there are 16 Broadway shows running, with a total of 33 full-time horn chairs. In meeting horn players over the years from all around the USA and the world, I am often asked, "What is it like to play in New York City?" or "How does the freelance scene really work?" I studied in the city, then after seven years as a member of the Israel Philharmonic, I returned to freelancing in 1991. I will attempt to unravel some of the mysteries of the Broadway horn scene, based on my experiences, and explain the system that keeps New York horn players running from gig to gig.

The centerpieces of musical life in New York are, of course, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the world famous orchestras and soloists appearing regularly at Carnegie Hall. The other major musical organizations here, the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera, perform six-month seasons at the New York State Theater. The American Ballet Theater performs at the Metropolitan Opera House for two months in the spring, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is across the river in their fabulous new hall, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. With these six major ensembles alone there is always a generous amount of extra work offered to freelance horn players. Each orchestra has an organized substitute list and players get onto the list by either past audition record, merit, experience, availability, or most likely a combination of the above.

There are, however, several other excellent ensembles in the metropolitan area that perform, record and tour regularly. This is all union work and the personnel in these groups come from the vast pool of New York freelance musicians. There are attendance requirements in all these orchestras for core members and also specific substitute lists. Some of the major freelance orchestras in town are the American Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Long Island Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Luke's and the New York Pops. Chamber Orchestras include the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, American Brass Quintet and the New York Woodwind Quintet are a few of the many chamber groups based in New York. These lists could go on and on, but one thing is sure, a call for a record date, jingle, or movie session is cause for anyone to juggle one's date book and accept the work. It's nice to collect TV re-use payments while the horn is in the case. The days of making a living on studio work alone are long gone, and the pool of studio musicians is large. Recording sessions are often booked at the last minute and it may take several calls to fill out a section. Despite the fact that there is so much orchestral work available to horn players as well as an active but unpredictable recording industry, the single largest employer for us is Broadway.

Years ago, subbing out your Broadway chair in order to take outside horn work was very difficult due to a show policy that did not allow frequent substitutes. As a result, a person was generally committed to being a show player, a studio player, or a classical player. Today, thanks to the fifty-percent takeoff policy in the current Broadway contract, musicians are able to keep up attendance requirements in their orchestra jobs, perform with major ensembles, play chamber music, accept solo engagements, take studio dates, go on vacations, raise kids, and even make a good living.

When a new show comes to Broadway, the producers hire a contractor to put together an orchestra for the production. Calls go out, sections are set, and soon you are sitting in the first rehearsal at the main rehearsal venue in New York City, Carroll Studios. Hopefully the show will get great reviews, win some Tony awards, make a lot of money, and run forever. Of course some become instant hits, but many go down within months or even weeks of opening. A Chorus Line ran for fifteen years and Cats is in its sixteenth season, but the great masterpiece Carrie (a nice horn book!) ran for only five performances. Hopefully, the show you get called for will run ad infinitum, even though veterans often joke, "The two happiest days in your life are when you get the call, and when the show closes!" Sometimes the greatest challenge of a long-running show is staying awake while you are playing. With new shows opening all the time and tourism in Times Square at an all-time high, Broadway is alive and well in 1999.

Each show performs eight times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for a total of four hundred and sixteen performances per year. The exceptions to this are seasonal long-running shows such as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, A Christmas Carol, and The Wizard of Oz. These shows perform more than eight times a week, sometimes four or five a day. However, they receive special consideration because they don't run all year and are less than two hours long. In a normal run, the regular contracted player(s) must play at least fifty percent of the shows in each thirteen-week cycle, a minimum of fifty-two shows per quarter. At the beginning of a new production, there is a "lock-in" period in which no taking off is allowed. A typical lock-in period may last four to eight weeks. After the lock-in period, taking off is allowed and subbing commences. There are also twenty-four vacation shows that must be taken every year. These shows count as a show played, so we can in fact play less than fifty percent of the shows. Now if, after taking your mandatory vacation days, you cannot reach your quarterly fifty percent, you may request a leave of absence. Leaves are granted by the music director, approved by the union, and rarely denied. A leave may be for a few days or for several months. While on a leave of absence, you are not permitted to play the show and conductors prefer that one sub covers the leave. If all else fails and you still cannot make your fifty percent minimum, you can take a sick day. Sound confusing? Well, at times it is. But meeting your quota is not difficult, it just takes some planning, and it all adds up to a lot of loyal and busy subs.

Being a sub in a show is in many ways more difficult then being a regular contracted player. First, the sub comes in to watch the book, and can record the show if he or she wants. A date is set and the sub plays their first show, hopefully to rave reviews from the conductor and the other players. This is usually the case, but some Broadway conductors can be quite difficult and some subs can be unprepared. The outcome of the latter can result in not being approved to play the show. A player might find that during the first show they are just trying to make page turns without dropping the mute, while sitting next to someone playing and reading the latest model train magazine! Unfortunately, a missed note here and there from a sub is often met with scowls from the podium, whereas a similar miss from a regular is rarely noticed. On the other hand, the regular players take the responsibility for the overall quality of the section and are accountable if a sub doesn't come to work. An empty seat in the horn section is akin to the crashing of the Hindenburg! E-mail is also starting to play an important role in contracting orchestra jobs and hiring Broadway subs. On any given day in New York City the date books of every horn player fiit together, the puzzle is complete, and all of the seats are miraculously fiilled. I have played in the city many years and it still amazes me that the system works with few mishaps.

As far as equipment is concerned, the Conn 8D is still the most common professional hom in New York City. However, many players have recently switched to other makers, or play the Conn in addition to some other type of horn. The Met section is predominantly a Conn 8D section, and most players in the New York Philharmonic now play on Engelbert Schmid instruments. The new generation of excellent triple horns has also made a big impact on New York players. Many players who used to bring a high hom and a double hom to a recording session or a contemporary music rehearsal now take a triple horn. I use a Yamaha triple hom and a Conn 8D.

We work in a melting pot of musical styles, schooling, and approaches to horn playing here in New York City, and sections of different players and equipment are thrown together to great results daily. Sometimes the variety of music played in one day is not only challenging but also cause to sit back and really laugh. I remember sitting in my show, Beauty and the Beast, after a sleepless night with our newborn son Markus. Hundreds of children were laughing and screaming in the theater, and I thought back to an ASO rehearsal of Sinfonia Domestica and a Huggies TM diaper jingle I had earlier in the day. After the panic of kids and diapers subsided, I got the message!

My advice to players just getting into the freelance business in New York, or any other city, is as follows. First, join the union, then get acquainted with as many working horn players as possible. Most work comes from recommendations from other hom players, so you should try to be aware of the subtle difference between communicating your availability and annoying established players for work. Next, always be prepared to play your best and try not to underestimate the high quality necessary to make a good impression on your colleagues. A new player is always listened to closely despite the fact that everyone may be joking around and having a great time. And finally, showing up on time and getting along with the other players, regardless of circumstances, is essential to being hired again. Of course, there are some darker sides to freelancing, e.g., politics, competition, unfairness, etc., which are realities that players have to learn for themselves. My own experience has been, however, that it is rewarding 99% of the time.

I hope I have shed a little light on our horn scene here, so that the next time you take a musical tour of our city you may want to stop by the Met and hear Howard Howard and Julie Landsman sing the Ring Cycle, or walk across the plaza and hear Phil Myers paste Ein Heldenleben. If you like the ballet, go over to the New York State Theater and hear the artistry of Paul Ingraham or check out Dave Jolley peeling off a concerto nearby. Next, you may want to witness R.J. Kelley and his natural horn unearth some gem from the eighteenth century. Want more opera? Stewart Rose is waiting for you over at the New York City Opera. If you still have time, stop by a recording session and see Bob Carlisle lay down some horn lines for a major motion picture, then definitely head down to the Village to see John Clark testify in some jazz club. But before you leave, be sure to stop by the orchestra pit of Beauty and the Beast and say hello to me. I should be there, well, at least fifty percent of the time.
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